The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale has closed out its season with several stunning performances in the Bay Area and Los Angeles of Handel’s oratorio “Saul.’’
Saul, in this fiery Old Testament story, was the first king of the Israelites and pretty much a loser as a monarch, doomed to yield his crown to his young rival David, who wins all the laurels after slaying the biblical Goliath and defeating the Philistines. A count was kept of downed Philistines: Ten thousand for David; a paltry thousand for Saul.
The score is full of orchestral riches, bright horn riffs, a sensually plucked theorbo, a keyboard glockenspiel that sounds silvery chimes. The work is performed in concert version as it was in Handel’s day, since there was a ban on representing biblical figures on the stage in the 18th century. The action is in the music; the often gaudy staged productions I’ve seen don’t add a lot to the explosive score.
This was a performance of extraordinary singing and vibrant characterization that brought to vivid life the royal family, the patriarch unraveling. Love developing and loyalties forming, an intense evening of theater.
King-in-the-wings David steals the show, as he should. As a close friend of Saul’s son Jonathan, he is part of Saul’s court and as such is offered one of Saul’s daughters to wed. Saul welcomes him initially, but comes to see him as his mortal enemy and goes mad with fear.
Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen’s portrayal of David is extraordinary. A 25-year-old Adler Fellow who is already making waves internationally, Cohen sang with a remarkable range of emotions, forceful and muscular when he remembered the battlefield, graceful and delicate when he addressed the unraveling of Saul. His aria about the death of Jonathan seemed to come from another planet; dark and haunting.
Baritone Daniel Okulitch gave a masterful performance as Saul, the king who wrestles with his fate and his loathing of David to the extent that he brings down his house. His roiling, robust voice meshed compellingly with Cohen’s plangent countertenor.
Soprano Sherezade Panthaki portrayed Saul’s daughter Michal with smoldering vocal phrasing that brought home her intimate feelings for David. Their love duets sparked genuine electricity. Aaron Sheehan as Jonathan sang with a lithe and lyric tenor, and as Saul’s maverick daughter Merab, Yulia Van Doren unleashed a bright, glimmering sound.
Nicholas McGegan delivered a performance of the 1738 work (incidentally librettist Charles Jennens was also the librettist for the Messiah) with the usual brilliant hues and passions, and Bruce Lamott’s chorale brought pure fervor to the stage to narrate and to celebrate David’s victories.
In June, Cohen will appear in San Francisco Opera’s production of Handel’s “Orlando,” taking over for famed countertenor David Daniels, who because of sexual misconduct allegations has been removed from many opera rosters, including San Francisco’s. Cohen is going places; he is one to watch.